A GRASS-ROOTS MODEL
"Please -- I need to talk to someone right away. I'm on lunch break now, but I've got to work late again tonight. Last time I had to work late, my boss said he'd fire me if I didn't go to bed with him soon…."
Mary Johnson (not her real name) made this call from a phone booth in the coffee shop of her hospital where she'd worked for the last seven years. Her job was near home, offered decent benefits, and paid enough to raise her three children. "But," says Freada Klein, who answered Mary Johnson's call at the Boston-area Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (AASC), "for thousands of women, sexual harassment turns an otherwise tolerable job into a nightmare."
Klein, Elizabeth Cohn Stuntz, and Lynn Wehrli all were rape-victim advocates before founding the AASC -- the first grass-roots group devoted to offering services to victims of sexual harassment at work. In their work with rape victims, all three women had answered hundreds of calls reporting on-the-job rapes.
"Women would call in desperation, scared to lose their jobs, wondering what they'd done to cause the unwanted advances," recalls Klein. "But our rape-crisis center -- and others -- could only do so much. Whoever heard of prosecuting the boss for rape -- and winning? And we couldn't respond to the less violent -- but extremely traumatic -- range of verbal and physical sexual assaults."
They thought of turning to women's caucuses in labor unions for help. But 75 percent of women's work is nonunion. Clearly, sexual harassment at work posed a new, complex tangle of problems -- legal, psychological, and economic -- that fell outside the means of existing groups.
After months of exploring practical strategies, fund-raising, and starting a campaign of public education in the Boston area, AASC opened the doors of its modest, downtown office for services to victims of sexual harassment in June, 1977.
AASC now offers legal and counseling referrals, and information on unemployment eligibility to victims of sexual coercion in the Boston area. The group is raising funds to pay a full-time staff that will include former sexual harassment victims, and they are developing a network of job counselors to help find other jobs for harassment victims. AASC members also speak in the New England Area. Their information packet includes a 24-page booklet that explains sexual coercion and outlines the AASC services. (For the packet, send a donation of $2 to AASC, P.O. Box 1, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139.)
"We all would be more than happy," offers AASC member Agnes Brophy, "to talk with women in other communities who want to develop similar services." Martha Hooven, also a member, emphasizes the importance of contacting local women's groups to ask for help and to avoid overlapping services. "We built AASC with the support of 9-to-5 [an organization of women office workers], the Cambridge Rape Crisis Center, and Transition House [a shelter for battered women]," she recalls. "If you're not in an urban area," suggests AASC member Mary Bularzik, "it's a good project for a NOW chapter, a women's center, or a union local."
-- Rochelle Lefkowitz
(The author is one of the founders of "Sister Courage," a Boston-based independent feminist news journal. She is currently editing a book on violence against women.)
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